Reviews

Top Ten Snow Stories (mainly for children)

Top Ten Snow Stories (mainly for children)

The Box of Delights, by John Masefield

The Box of Delights, by John Masefield

I love snow. Mind you, I don’t particularly enjoy driving in it. But getting out in the snow, taking pictures in the snow, walking among trees in the snow, and, most of all, chucking snow at other people, is one of the things which make Winter more or less my favourite season.

Part of that is my life-long addiction to snow-fiction. And, as that addiction is life-long, it began as a child, and therefore features more children’s books than not.

Here goes.

#1 The Box of Delights

More than any other snow book, The Box of Delights gets in among the snow and makes it the heart of the story. Falling snow, melting snow, floods after snow (I never really got that until I started living near a river in the country), and the unleashing of the snows of the four winds to cover the landscape in such drifts as have not been seen since the wolves ran. John Masefield, who lived not so far away in Ledbury, and wrote very much about the landscape he knew, manages to combine a constant childlike simplicity which grows on the reader as you get older with penetrating observation of local people and customs, alongside one of the most adventurous stories you will find in children’s writing. The very last two pages are a disappointment, and I usually don’t read them, for reasons set out by JRR Tolkien in Tree and Leaf (though he doesn’t reference this story).

#2 The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

The White Witch and the endless winter, with the arrival of Christmas (long kept out) and the thawing into sudden spring have been with me since I was a small child. My mother read them to us, and later I read the story for myself, and have done again and again over the years. Potent as symbol, allegory, and just a cracking good story for any age, the first Narnia book turned retiring (and, by all accounts, rather cantankerous) academic C S Lewis into an international literary superstar. In my view this is one of the best books ever written. It comes in at number two because the snow is better in the Box of Delights.

#3 The Snow Queen

You can take your Little Mermaids. For me, The Snow Queen is by far the best story that Hans Christian Andersen ever told. A novella rather than a novel, the tale of Gerda’s journey through the wilderness to rescue Kay has been told, retold, filmed and refilmed, and will probably carry on being so while books last. This is much more advanced and literary than most of Andersen’s tales, and this shows more than anything else in the resonance it has in other literature. John Masefield had already chosen the name ‘Kay’ for his protagonist in The Midnight Folk, so he clearly did not lift it from The Snow Queen, although the resonance of name may well have inspired him to write about snow. The scene where Abner Brown causes the all of the drawstrings of the bag of storms to be opened, though, it lifted straight from the Snow Queen, and many other elements remind us strongly of the earlier book. Likewise, the White Witch of the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe clearly shows her debt to the Snow Queen, and the way in which she tries to draw Edmund into her world at her castle strongly reminds us of the way the Snow Queen tries to fix Kay in her world.

#4 The Silver Chair

Narnia again for number 4. You may have noticed that as the Narnia books go on — in their original writing order, rather than the ‘chronological’ order which is popular today — the print gets smaller. The same thing happened for the first three Harry Potter books, though the publishers gave up on book 4 and clearly decided that Rowling was not going to write short books in future. The reality is that CS Lewis was writing longer, more grown-up books, but the publishers were keeping them to the same format. The Silver Chair is book 4 in the original order. It’s the most adventurous of all the stories, and the first to revolve around three characters who are none of them particularly likeable (you may wonder what it would have been like to hang out with the rather oversweet Pevensies between books 1 and 2). The central part is full of bitter weather, and Lewis manages to communicate the awfulness of being cold for a very, very long time better than any of the other books on this list. It’s number 4 because much of the book is actually not set in snow (for example, the parts underground).

#5 Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Forgive me for including this one, as only a very small part of it is actually set in snow (“war troubled him not so much but that winter was worse…”), but the central winter journey guides Sir Gawain’s whole (but ultimately foolish) desire to stay in the warmth of the castle. This is the great non-Chaucerian masterpiece of medieval English. It’s by far the cleverest and most complete of all the Arthurian stories (I’m really not that much of a fan of Mallory), and, to me, stands up as one of the most perfectly plotted stories of all time.

#6 The Left Hand of Darkness

Setting science-fiction on a planet which only has one kind of weather has a long and honourable tradition. Dune, for example, is set on an entirely desert planet and only occasionally bothers going anywhere else. Ursula Le Guin’s masterpiece, though, — and quite possibly the most masterful science-fiction work by anyone — is not just set on a snowy planet. The planet’s name is ‘Winter’ (or Gethen, to the locals), and winter is pretty much all you get. With characteristic insight, Le Guin gets far more out of exploring what it would be like to live on an entirely winter planet (populated by hermaphrodites who have an ability to see the future at times) than Herbert ever does with Dune, although she doesn’t quite get into the snow in the way that some of the authors higher up the list manage.

#7 The Fellowship of the Ring

Most of the Fellowship of the Ring isn’t about snow, but the passages which are, are just magnificent. In The Hobbit Tolkien revealed himself as a master of miserable weather, pointing out that the good times are rarely worth writing about.

#8 Far North

I came across Far North through the Amazon Vine programme, which provides things for budding reviewers to review. I have to say I’ve not been that impressed with the most of the fiction I encountered through Vine, but this one is a gem. Marcel Theroux’s novel is about a post-semi-apocalyptic community which has died down to just one person in Siberia, and that person’s journey and adventure across the wastes. It really does keep you surprised right to the last moment, and is thoroughly enjoyable. And very, very cold.

#9 The Virgin in the Ice

The sixth Cadfael novel by Ellis Peters is a tour-de-force of winter writing. The mini-ice age of the middle-ages links the period inexorably with winter in my mind, and this is by far the best modern evocation of it that I’ve come across.

#10 The Skifter

This one’s rather cheeky, I know, but this is the book I wrote a couple of years ago about an early fall of snow in Birmingham, and the way it leads a teenager into winter a hundred, three hundred and nine hundred years before. You can download the first half for free, and, if you like it but are broke, email me and I’ll let you have the second half for free as well. See if you spot some of the references and echoes of other books on this list.

Missing in action:

There are lots of other snow books that didn’t make it onto my list. White Fang and other north American novels never really impinged on my conscience as a child (we weren’t allowed to watch ITV either). Dr Zhivago is great, but I couldn’t quite get into the coldness of it. The Anglo-Saxon poem The Seafarer — or the bit that was translated and excerpted into a school poetry book — was one of my main inspirations for studying Old English later in life, and Roger Lancelyn Green’s Myths of the Norsemen was a major inspiration for studying Old Icelandic, though it doesn’t talk about snow as much as you might think. Finally, if you are up for a winter chill, try reading through the Anglo Saxon Chronicle. As my Anglo Saxon tutor John Kiteley pointed out, the Saxons measured the years in winters, and every entry begins with a number, and then the word ‘Winters’.

Brrrr!

By the way, the links on this page mostly go to Amazon. If you were to buy from them following those links, it would defray some of the costs of this site. I’m only putting this bit in because it’s now part of their terms and conditions. Just so you know.

TV Renaissance?

TV Renaissance?

Pillars of the Earth Pillars of the Earth debuted on Channel 4 on Saturday, based on the Ken Follett book of the same name, following success in the USA and Canada. Set in the Anarchy of Stephen and Mathilda, historically accurate (or at least plausible) recreations are evidently high on the agendas of producers Ridley and Tony Scott, and the overall look and feel is very similar to Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood, though without Russell Crowe. It is a Germany-Canada-UK-US production, filmed in Austria and Hungary, with a primarily British cast featuring well-known favourites such as Matthew Macfadyen, Ian McShane, and Donald Sutherland. At two hours for the first episode, with four one-hour and one two-hour episodes to follow, this is epic in scale as well as in scope.

In an ordinary year, this would be a good example of the high-quality art that TV occasionally throws up, but just as often doesn’t. Television has had some successful forays into medievalism, such as the contemporaneous Cadfael series. But it has also had laughable disasters, such as the entirely unlamented Covington Cross. In terms of its focus on historicity, Pillars of the Earth rings as true as Cadfael, but on a much more ambitious scale. In terms of the Ridley Scott canon, this is closer to Kingdom of Heaven than to the rather more sentimental Robin Hood [1].

This is not an ordinary year, though. We’ve already had the seminal Sherlock and the big-budget-look The Deep, alongside the latest incarnation of Doctor Who, and a welcome return for Spooks. And it’s only October.

It’s easy to like a few things, see a few points, and call it a pattern. But there is more to it than that, I think.

First, in terms of vision and execution, Sherlock, The Deep, Spooks and Pillars of the Earth all rival film explorations of similar material. Sherlock is substantially superior to any of the film adaptations I’ve ever seen, and The Deep is (I might suggest) almost infinitely superior to the movie of the same name. One might argue that Scott Free Productions, the production company owned by Ridley and Tony Scott, would naturally make TV to the same standards that the Scotts make films. After all, would the man who brought us Blade Runner, Thelma and Louise, Alien and Gladiator, not to mention the ‘1984’ Apple Macintosh commercial, stoop to anything less? Except, of course, we’ve seen Numb3rs, complete with a ‘3’ for an ‘e’ in the title, which, for all that it was enjoyable, was no more than CSI with maths instead of forensics, in much the same way that The Mentalist is CSI with body language.

Second, TV commissioners are beginning to take some real risks to put better programmes on the screen. What were the UK’s big shows of the last ten years? Who wants to be a Millionaire?, The Weakest Link, Big Brother, Pop Idol and the X-Factor. Chris Tarrant and the Celador shareholders, including Jasper Carrott, are surely very happy with the success of Millionaire, but one can’t help wondering if a reason why Celador co-produced Slumdog Millionaire was a certain frustration at setting the world alight with a game show, rather than a work of art. In the wake of Big Brother, we were treated to an endless series of unreality TV, with celebrities marooned in the bush and on desert islands, non-celebrities in the desperate chase to become Britain next top this or that, and an ever increasing Hello-style fascination with the life of Katie Price. There probably are people sitting in commissioners chairs somewhere who still believe that all this was ‘great telly’, but the truth is we were heading steadily towards bread and circuses, with cash handouts and bitter gladiatorial combats played out across the small scene for our evening entertainment.

Third, people who I talk to who do work in television are suddenly genuinely enthusiastic for the changes to the format. Tell anyone in TV that you don’t really see why we had to go wide-screen, and you will be treated to an almost memorised explanation of how the 16:9 was researched, how it really does offer the best possible shape. Mind you, I still have my doubts. As a photographer, the Golden Section, which is about 1:1.61, is still my ideal of what the shape should be. Likewise HD. Format geeks will talk about the benefits of 1080p over 1080i, and their superiority of 720i, and its superiority over 576i, but there’s no doubt that videographers are artistically inspired to make the most of the new medium. With our relatively small 28″ TV sitting on the other side of the room, I have to say I really can’t tell most of the time whether I’m watching HD or standard, but what I can see is that the sets are visually richer with much greater attention to detail than used to be the case when there only was 4:3 standard definition TV. Remembering that the original Star Wars trilogy is still not available on Blu-Ray, and was ostensibly held up when it first went to HD to give the producers time to clean it up and remove some of the visual glitches that none of us ever noticed in the cinema, and it becomes obvious why TV drama producers feel much more like theatre release film-makers than they have done at any time since TV moved over to predominantly video production and high-end cinema went to 70mm.

Fourth and finally, it is British TV, or partly British in the case of Pillars of the Earth, which is doing this. In the previous golden age of British TV, the 70s and 80s, we made a virtue of our gritty writing and low budget ways. Comedy? Monty Python for intellectuals, the Goodies for family audiences. Defiantly low budget, defiantly British. Science-fiction? Blakes 7 with its famously wobbly sets, and Doctor Who where the limitations of the model-making were glossed over with a lot of dry ice. Children’s TV? The Herbs, Magic Roundabout and the immortal Noggin the Nog (and don’t forget the Wombles and the Clangers), not forgetting the all-improv Play School. All of us of a certain age can look fondly back on those glory days, but a lot of it does not visually stand up to today’s audiences in the way that American imports such as Star Trek and even the Waltons do.

I once challenged Michael Grade about the dearth of British science-fiction, and suggested we bring back Doctor Who (I had no idea at the time that he was the man who cancelled it). He was running Channel 4 at the time. His response was that Britain could not remotely afford to make that kind of show, that general audiences didn’t want it — he acknowledged that there was a dedicated sci-fi audience who would lap it up, but no more — and that it was really an embarrassment to the BBC that they were showing the similarly fantastical Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Channel 4 was showing Angel at the time, but I didn’t point that out). He was quite gruff about it. Six months later he rejoined the BBC, and recommissioned Doctor Who. You can be quite certain that my exchange with him had nothing to do with this. But the main point he was putting across was that audiences were becoming more demanding, and that British television could simply no longer afford to compete with America in anything that involved CGI, car-chases, or anything else remotely expensive. I came out of the meeting feeling that we were condemned to endless reruns of Only Fools and Horses, and bleak suburban dramas which cost almost nothing to make.

To some extent, this was the world of the Big Brother set — television that kept millions riveted, with an absolutely minimal per-minute cost (especially the 24 hour version on E4).

I see the signs — and I hope they will continue — that British producers and British funders are becoming confident, willing to make TV which will stand the test of time, rather than pump up the ratings over a single weekend.

TV renaissance? It could happen.

Show 1 footnote

  1. Though, for my money, Robin Hood was vastly superior to the Kevin Costner adventure, and deserved a better write-up from the critics than it got.
Best thing I’ve heard in years

Best thing I’ve heard in years

Suzanne Vega Close-up

Close-up Vol 1: Love Songs

Suzanne Vega exploded into my musical life in 1985 when someone played me her debut album and said “why can’t everything be produced like that?” The vocals were largely unprocessed, the guitar playing startlingly beautiful, the overall instrumentation sparse, and the lyrics bright, challenging, intelligent, and ever so slightly world weary.

The next album, Solitude Standing, had more elaborate production, though stand out tracks such as Luka and Tom’s Diner put Vega on the map for many who had missed the first outing. The follow-up, Days of Open Hand, was much thicker in texture, exploring wider worlds but moving away from the intimate brightness of the first album. Following that, 99.9 degrees was industrial, band based. Not everyone liked it. Finally, the last two albums of new songs, Nine Objects of Desire, Songs in Red and Grey and Beauty and Crime were more polished, more reflective, but somehow — to my ears — did not communicate the stinging musical brilliance that first switched on a whole new style of music for me, and inspired a generation of female singer songwriters.

For her new album, Suzanne Vega has rerecorded a selection of songs from right across her albums, as part of a longer project to rerecord most of the songs (or all?) over four albums.

If the notion of a female singer-songwriter rerecording her old stuff twenty-five years on doesn’t thrill you, then you absolutely have to listen to some of the previews of this on Amazon or iTunes.

Vega doesn’t just return to the brilliant minimalism of the first album, she goes far beyond it. With just her voice, her own acoustic guitar playing and, on some tracks, bass and electric guitar, and with an absolute minimum of effects which make everything sound nice and smooth, but also put distance between the singer and the listener, this is the most proximate album I’ve heard in a long, long time, and puts you right in the mix, among the musicians.

The sound is so detailed that you even hear the chair squeaking at the end of Marlene On The Wall.

Vega has developed more traces of huskiness (aside from that, her voice has weathered far better than… well, let’s not name the culprits) which add to the personality of the lyrics, and, in keeping with her later vocal style, moves the words around the rhythm more and uses pauses to focus on meaning.

Her guitar playing has got better. What was already a bright, intricate and percussive style is now so strong that there is no need for percussion, though you may have to listen carefully to realise that — beyond some finger clicking and hand-clapping — all of the percussive sound is from that guitar.

This is sensitively underpinned by the electric guitar of Gerry Leonard and the bass of Michael Visceglia, though these aren’t on all tracks. Zak Soulam provides additional acoustic guitar on Caramel.

Generally, the pace is a bit slower with the tracks from the early albums. Gypsy doesn’t quite rollick along in the same way, and neither does Marlene on the Wall. But don’t let that put you off — really.

More importantly for me — though those early songs are given a fresh, new, incisive voice with the re-recording — some of the songs on the later albums which (I have to admit) I originally listened to a couple of times and then forgot about come entirely alive for me in this reworking. I was listening to ‘Bound’ for about the eighth time yesterday, and wondering “how did I miss this first time around?” It is so exquisitely fragile:

“And I ask
I am asking you
Asking you if you
Might still want me.”

Just as importantly, played on the same album in a now very similar style, the musical connection with Small Blue Thing becomes very apparent, lending additional nuance to both songs.

I posted on Suzanne Vega’s FaceBook page: “Your new album is absolutely brilliant. One of the best things I have by anyone for years.” The next day I got a notification: “Suzanne Vega likes this”. It absolutely made my day.

But this album has made my month.

It really is, quite literally, the best thing I’ve heard in years.

Payazén — the finest buskers in the world?

Payazén — the finest buskers in the world?

Klezmer/Gypsy band Payazén busking in York

Klezmer/Gypsy band Payazén busking in York. Note the irony of where they chose to stand

We saw Amsterdam based Klezmer/Gypsy/Balkans band Payazén busking in York this week. I’ve no idea who the real finest buskers in the world are, but, if you want my opinon, Payazén have got to be up there with the best.

As a former street performer myself, I always look at who’s doing and what they’re about with some interest.

To me, there are four things which make or break a street performance — whether for cash, paid for by an event organiser, or for any other purpose.

  1. Payazén's clarinet player Jason AlderWhat you see or hear from a distance. Lots of people sound good close by, but, if you watch, a lot of people will give  busker a wide berth or hurry on past. Great buskers make you want to change course to go and find them.
  2. How well they can grab and hold an audience. This is about the quality of the show, it’s about eye contact, it’s about there being enough variation to keep you wanting more, and it’s about being loud or bright enough to be comfortably heard and seen with all the street’s distractions
  3. How you relate to potential customers. Some buskers seem to imagine that if you’re performing on the street, people owe you money to listen or take photographs. Great buskers know that most passers-by only put money in the pot if they’ve experienced something they really enjoyed.
  4. What the audience can take away with them. Busking is a fleeting moment in someone’s life. A great flyer for an event, a well-produced CD, a balloon sculpture… anything the punters take with them can fix the experience into permanence.

Payazé, in playing in YorkThese guys have all of this in spades. The sound of their Jewish-Gypsy acoustic folk came snaking down the street long before we saw them. They’d positioned themselves in front of a beautifully designed but evidently commercially unsuccessful former pork-butcher, which framed them nicely, and they dressed the part. Visually, a clarinet, a double-bass and a violin on the street with money thrown into a violin case and no extraneous amplification is vastly more appealing than, say, an electric guitar, a CD player giving background music and two or three miscellaneous battery powered amplifiers, supporting an ice-cream tub for coins.

The longer we watched, the better the music got, and when I produced a £fiver to pay for the CD, the clarinet player winked at me and nodded before carrying on. By this time quite a crowd had gathered (there were six of us, and nothing draws a crowd like a crowd), and the band upped the tempo and the energy to give everyone who had bothered to stop the show they deserved to hear.

Double bassThe CD itself was — on the surface of it — as home made as they come. It was a plain CDR with a CD label attached, and the sleeve was paper made into an envelope with the aid of eighteen (!) staples. The artwork was hand-drawn black and white, an apparently photocopied with the kind of multi-copy degradation that I haven’t seen since the 1990s. All the lettering was by hand, and the production credit was “Recorded at school studios Amsterdam”.

It wasn’t until I got it home and put it onto the hifi that I discovered that this was a professional recording, expertly made and expertly mastered. A true delight to take away, and more than worth the £5 it cost me.

A look at their website http://www.myspace.com/payazen reveals that these aren’t just some guys who happened to have some instruments with them when in York. They’ve also got a Facebook page if you prefer that route. They’ve played Glastonbury, and are on a UK tour. York was just — it would seem — an impromptu stopping point. But a treat for all who saw it just the same.

There were many buskers in York that day. One man played exquisite classical guitar music on a Fender Strat. Great to hear, but nothing visually to compare with Payazen. Another upbraided me for taking his photo without permission, clearly having failed to learn the first law of busking: people will only give you money if you make them want to. We saw another busker whose act had cleared a wide space around them, as people hurried past to avoid eye contact. There was also a pianist who had brought a stripped down upright piano into the street. He was probably brilliant, but we only got to hear him for a moment, as he went off for a short break just as we arrived. Certainly, a piano on the street is a good start for the kind of star quality that Payazén exhibited.

Anyway, if this has whetted your appetite, listen to their tracks on myspace. See if you agree. Are these the finest buskers in the world?

Back to Top